Near/Far

 

READ: Ephesians 2:11-22

Who is near in your life, and who is far?
I ask that question to open today’s message because it’s the same question Paul is asking his congregation in the Roman city of Ephesus roughly 1960 years ago.
The church in Ephesus was important to Paul and for the birth of Christianity.
Ephesus was on the southwestern tip of modern-day Turkey, across the Aegean Sea from Greece.
That whole area was called Asia Minor at one time, and Ephesus was a city of commerce and religious pilgrimages.
It was a place of many different ethnicities and cultures, and while there were Jews living in Ephesus, the church also composed many Gentiles —
That is, non-Jews.
This was among the churches that the apostles created or helped to create.
Paul was very instrumental in Ephesus’s foundation and fruition.
But like all early churches, there was a lot of confusion.
A lot guessing.  A lot of opinions.
And a lot of heads butting between Christ-following Jews and Christ-following Gentiles.
Remember, the first Christ followers were Jews who witnessed and believed in the Messiah.
The Gentiles were non-Jews, basically outside of Israel.
One of Paul’s challenges in Ephesus was to clear the air of a rather large and looming question:
Do you have to become a Jew to become a Christian?
That is, do you have to be circumcised — like the Jews — in order to become a Christian.
This issue, as we just said, created a huge division between Christ-following Jews and Christ-following Gentiles.
In fact, the Christ-following Jews at the time thought that to be a child of God, you had to follow God’s law.
One of those laws, indeed, was circumcision.
And the Gentiles were a little squeamish about that — understandably so!
That put a lot of distance between the Christ-following Jews —who believed they were more near to God — and the Christ-following Gentiles — who were told they were far from God.
And so Paul writes a few chapters about this, as we read in Ephesians 6 today.

Near and Far
Let’s cut right to the chase, then.
Paul begins telling the Gentiles that they were once far away from God because they were without Christ.
That is, they didn’t know Jesus.
That’s not their fault…
And Paul writes beginning in Verse 13:
“But now, thanks to Christ Jesus, you who once were so far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. He canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.”
Right here, Paul says a whole lot of key things.
We’ll focus on just a couple:
Christ’s body — that is, his sacrifice — brought us together because we are now Christ’s body. Physically and Spiritually; and
Jesus canceled the detailed rules of the Law.
That’s a big one, right there.
Jesus didn’t negate the Law — that is, the 10 commandments;
but he negated the “detailed rules” of the Law, Paul says in Verse 15.
Those detailed rules include things like ceremonial cleanliness, sacrifices, purification rituals and, among them, circumcision.
I imagine when he said these words, there was a huge sigh of relief from the male Gentile members of the congregation…
But this was a new way to think:
With Christ, there was no more near and far.
No one was nearer to God, and no one was farther from God.
No one.
Why is that?
I’m glad you asked.
Because before Christ died for us, we all were far from God.
When I use the word Far, i’m not talking about a physical distance — God is everywhere and among and within us
— God always is closer than our breath, whether we notice, acknowledge or even accept that —
but we were spiritually distant because we were separated by our sin.
Remember, sin is turning away from God in the choices we make that are against the will of God.
That creates separation between God and us.
Jesus came to bridge that space, to bring us together, to once and for all erase that distance.
And he did so by paying for our salvation.
He gave his perfect life for our imperfect lives so that we could have perfect life again.
We are one because Christ gave his body for us, that we would become his body here on earth.
We are now Christ.
Sally isn’t more or less Christ than Joe, just like I’m not more or less Christ than Billy Jean…
We’re all Christ.
We’re all one.
And that’s because we’ve been bought, redeemed, by Christ.
And because we’ve been purchased through Christ’s blood, we are near God always.

Lost puppy…
Now, here’s where it gets fun:
We had no choice in the matter, did we?
God saw us here, and just fell in love with us, and just plunked down the currency to buy us back.
To take us home and live in God’s presence forever.
##
I remember as a 10-year-old, I was walking home from school one day, and a little German Shepherd puppy started following me around the park.
So I played with him.
I could find any owner nearby.
There was no tag or collar.
This was long before micro-chipping…
And so I knocked on all the doors of the houses around the park, but no one recognized the puppy.
It was getting late, and the puppy just sort of followed me home…
And when I showed up, I pleaded with mom to keep the puppy.
The dog really didn’t have a choice at that point.
My mom did…
But I swore I would care for it and walk it and clean up after it…
And I adopted the puppy.
Why?
Because I wanted to spend time with him.
I wanted him to be loved,  
and I wanted him to have a good home.
It may be a trivial or silly comparison, but this is what God did with us.
Saw us there, far away.
And brought us near.
Not through anything we’ve done.
Lord knows, we’re not always as attractive as a soft, warm, furry puppy dog…
We’re downright wretched sometimes as we keep our distance from God…

Jew and Gentile
And so Paul expounds in this letter about the common bond that is now faith in Christ.
Not faith in ourselves.
Faith in Christ.  
It shows this oneness:
What God has done for Christ by raising him up, God has done for us — raising us up just the same.
And so there are two important things here:
Nothing that we do or don’t do and nothing that we possess or don’t possess moves God to save us. God saves us only because God loves us.
If we do good things, it doesn’t make us better than anyone else (The Jews thought so). God saves us so that we do good things for people.
Because of Christ, we take part in being a new creation — a new humanity.
If and when we follow Christ, we become a new person.
We join a family of new people.
Now, you may be thinking, “Well, that kinda sounds like an us and them… “
“It sounds like we who are saved through Christ and all the others who don’t know Christ…”
And this is a dangerous way of thinking.
It’s something we get very wrong as Christians, especially.
It’s harsh, judgmental and flat-out wrong.
No, see, God’s plan is to unite us all, to bring us all into this new humanity.
And it’s not what we do to get there, and it’s not what we own or even how we act.
NOTHING we can do.
We’re all exactly the same in this!
See, it seems like an us and them, but it’s actually that we’re all just“us”…
The “us” who can do nothing to earn, deserve or somehow purchase God’s love.
That’s not just some of us; it’s all of us!
In that regard, we’re all one big ‘ol us —
—us who can do nothing to earn God’s love.
Us who cannot save ourselves.
Us who cannot save one another.
Here’s who we are: We’re humans. That’s it.
So when we see those we see as the other — our families, the church body, other denominations, non-Christians, non-believers, atheists, people in different countries, people with different-colored skin, people who are billionaires, saints and sinners alike…
The denominator is who can save us, not how we can save ourselves!
Sure, there are differences among us — some huge differences — but not in our makeup.
In our personalities, but not in the fact that we’re all one in this whole singular group that needs a Savior.
So it’s really astounding that we create, subscribe to and proliferate attitudes that stereotype, segregate or otherwise create division among us.
Did you know that whether you’re from Pennsylvania or Russia or China or Nairobi or any other place on earth that, genetically, we share 99.9 percent of our DNA with every person on this planet?
We are 99.9 percent identical!
It’s science, not theory.
We’re only one-tenth a percent different in our makeup.
Color of skin, ethnicity or origin of birth don’t matter at all.
God created us — not just as brothers and sisters — but basically identical twins!

How we live
But this isn’t at all how we live, is it?
I have a very good friend named Sam who is a pastor near DC.
We studied at seminary together, and I’m blessed to know him.
We became friends on Facebook probably three years ago.
I remember when I friended him, then I saw him later, he said, jokingly, “Oh, are you sure you want to be my friend on Facebook? I post a lot of controversial stuff that might drive you crazy!”
He’s right. He does.
Every day.
Multiple times a day.
See, Sam, who is black, grew up, lives and pastors in a predominantly black community.
A community where it’s not unusual to see racial segregation,
fights, attacks, hate and even murders.
A place where each young black child has to hear “the talk” from his or her parents.
That is, how to behave when confronted by a white police officer.
That’s a concept that’s so far away from our safe little homespun community of Bellefonte.
I don’t know how he does it.
But that’s the ministry God called him to.
But I think about Sam on a day like today, when we are all sitting here together with the proven science to know that we’re 99.9 percent genetically alike, and yet sometimes 99.9 percent different in the way we treat one another.
What does this mean?
God created us almost exactly the same.
But we created our attitudes about one another based on that 0.1 percent difference.
The Divine created us as all the same to be together as one.
The human divided us.
Paul is asking us today: Who do you go with?
The divine, or the human?
See we’re a lot closer to one another than we think.
Certainly, we’re a lot closer to one another than we act.

From the beginning…
When Paul was preaching to the Gentile cities such as Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, Philippi and Rome, the Gentiles —these non-Jews — felt incredibly divided.
And the Jews were certain that this was God’s plan — to be divided.
Otherwise, why did God call the Jews and not the Gentiles to be God’s chosen?
Why would God prescribe that the Jews had to live by the Law — the commandments?
Why would God command that all males be circumcised to show the difference?
Why would God call the Jews to be purified, clean?
Doesn’t that make all the others — those Gentiles not chosen? Not God’s children? Unclean?
God’s plan all along, Paul tells us, was that God certainly did select and save the Jews to be God’s chosen people.
But chosen for what?
To accomplish a task:
Bring all of God’s children — all people, not just 99.9 percent, but 100 percent — to God.
How does that happen?
Christ paid for all of us — 100 percent —
So that just means that we have to live into our adoption, our salvation, that love of Christ.
And how do we do that?
We love one another as Christ loves us.
How can we possibly do that if we think we are near to God and they are far?
Paul says we are all us now, and we are all near now.
All of us.
Not just some, but all.
The differences between us, friends, are human-made differences.
Genetically, we’re the same.
Color of skin, gender, age, preferences…
99.9 percent the same; 100 percent’ God’s
The rest of it is what we’ve done as broken humans in a broken world.
Division over religion, politics, social status, you name it…
We did that.
Just like how the Jews felt about the Gentiles.
What’s funny is that to create a distinction between us and them, the Jews had to physically change their appearance through circumcision.
Because genetically, they were all the same.

Being welcome
In a few moments, we’ll be welcoming new members into the church.
They’ll stand up here, and we’ll receive them —either as transfers from another church or with professions of faith.
And when we do that, you, too, will be asked to reaffirm your faith statement.
We do this together to remind us that all of us are the body of Christ.
One.
Not two.
Not us and them.
There is no us and them.
There is only us.
And while we were once separated from God,
we are now brought together in Christ.
Christ in us.
Us as Christ in this world.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s change the way we think about the other.
There is no other.
Sure, it’s science: 99.9 percent.
But even without the DNA testings and the genetic science,
Paul knew what Jesus claimed;
what Christ died for;
and what was God’s plan all along:
To bring us near, once and for all.
Never to be of feel far away again.
We can’t be far from one another if we’re near to God.
Can’t be both.
It’s impossible.
Because we’re all one in Christ.
Praise God! Praise God!
Amen.
 

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